Margaret Bondfield was a leading trade unionist, a camaigner for women’s rights and the first female member of the British Cabinet.
Margaret was born in Somerset in 1873. She came from a big family and was the eleventh child! Her parents were textile workers, and her father was known for his radical political views.
When she was just 14 Margaret left home to go and work in a fabric shop in Hove. While working there she became friends with Louisa Martindale, who was part of the women’s rights movement. Louisa invited Margaret to her house and let her borrow books about working people’s rights and socialism which began to really inspire young Margaret’s mind.
When Margaret moved to London in 1894 she continued to work as a shop assistant. However she found that the conditions for shop workers there were much worse than they had been for her in Brighton. Workers could be expected to work up to 100 hours per week and were often treated very poorly by their bosses.
Margaret began to secretly write about what it was really like for these, mostly female, shop assistants. She used the name ‘Grace Dare’ so that no-one would know it was really her writing. Each month her undercover reports appeared in a magazine called The Shop Assistant. Her findings became part of a report about conditions for shop workers which the Women’s Industrial Council published in 1898.
She was elected to join the Shop Assistants Union District Council, which was the first of many roles she would fulfil in different unions and organisations.
Around this time she met Mary Macarthur, another important figure in the history of unions and women’s rights. They became life long friends and allies in the fight for equal rights for women. In 1906 Margaret and Mary founded the first general union for women, the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW).
Margaret dedicated her life to working for the Unions she was involved with, recruiting shop workers to join the National Union of Shop Assistants and speaking publicly about workers’ rights. She said,
“I had no vocation for wifehood or motherhood, but an urge to serve the Union.”
In 1910 the government invited Margaret to join an Advisory Committee looking at new health insurance laws. She fought for women’s needs and as a result persuaded the government to include benefits for pregnant women in their new bill. Importantly, she also made sure that the law said the benefits received by these women would be their own property (not their husbands.)
By this time people had begun to campaign for votes for women. The most well known suffrage group, the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst, was asking for equal voting rights with men. The problem was, that at this time not even all men were allowed to vote – it depended on how much property you owned, which meant many poorer people, male or female, were not allowed to vote.
Margaret Bondfield felt that she couldn’t agree with the WSPU, and instead joined, and became chairperson, of the Adult Suffrage Society. She believed that everyone, regardless of their gender or status, should be allowed to vote. Because she worked with, and came from, the working class she couldn’t support a new voting bill which would only benefit the middle and upper classes.
Margaret had another disagreement with the main suffragist movements at the start of the First World War. At the outbreak of war the WSPU worked out a deal with the government that meant all the suffragettes who were in prison would be released; in return they would stop their campaigning and put their energy into supporting the war effort.
During the First World War the number of women workers increased greatly. As men were told that they had to join the army, female workers were needed to fill their places in jobs at home. However, women were not paid the same as the men who had been doing those jobs. As well as campaigning for peace, Margaret devoted her time to fighting for better pay for women workers during the war. Through the NFWW she argued that they should receive a minimum of £1 per week and that there should be equal pay for equal work.
At the end of the war in 1918 the government introduced a new voting law which allowed some women to vote, but it was only women who were over 30 and owned their own property (or were married to a man who did!) Margaret was not satisfied with this law, calling it ‘mean and inadequate’.
Another thing which happened that year was much better news, Margaret was elected to the Trade Unions Council. Five years later, in 1923, she became chairperson of the council, making her the first ever woman to fulfil the position!
The government finally introduced equal voting rights for EVERYONE in 1928. When they did Margaret was overjoyed. She said,
“Once and for all, we shall destroy the artificial barrier in the way of any women who want to get education in politics and who want to come forward and take their full share in the political life of their day”
The next year the Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald made Margaret his Minister of Labour – this made her the first woman ever to have a seat on the British Cabinet!
She remained in politics for some time. Some of the ideas she supported or put forward were not always popular and eventually she left politics to go her own way.
During the Second World War she led a drive for more women to be on the police force and founded the Women’s Group on Public Welfare. In her investigations for this group she highlighted the real poverty that many inner city children, who had now become evacuees, were living in.
Margaret died in 1953 after a life fully dedicated to creating justice and equality for people from all walks of life, and especially for women.
Find out more…
Have a look online at the National Portrait Gallery, they have some great photos of Margaret.
There are a few fantastic old videos of Margaret and other female MPs at the Pathe website. Have a look here.
You can actually still buy a copy of the report Margaret produced during the Second World War, Our Towns, A Close Up.
Find out more about women and work in the 19th Century on the brilliant Striking Women website, which has loads of interactive resources.